By Julie Poucher Harbin, editor/ Alberto Fernandez | ISLAMiCommentary | – –
Dozens of Middle East studies scholars, students and the general public packed a public talk — “Beyond Hysteria and Apologia: The ISIS Challenge in Perspective” — given by retired US diplomat Ambassador Alberto Fernandez.
“ISIS is neither the coming of World War 3, nor a minor distant threat, but an important problem that needs to be treated seriously without exaggeration or hysteria; (with) common sense and judicious use of American power,” said Fernandez, who before retiring in May 2015 was the State Department’s Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
Most of Fernandez’ three decades in the Foreign Service was spent in the Middle East. Currently vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), he also sits on the Board of Directors for the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
“The rise of Islamic State or Daesh, has captivated the world’s attention since the dramatic events of June 2014 with the double reality of the fall of Mosul and the declaration of the Baghdadi Caliphate,” said Fernandez, beginning his talk with history.
The Islamic State of Iraq (precursor to ISIS) came close to establishing a caliphate in 2006, and after its near decapitation in 2010, made its comeback, he said, “feeding off of the open sectarianism and incompetence of the US-supported Nouri Al-Maliki government and the horrific bloodletting carried out by the Assad regime in Syria.”
He continued: “Although its initial effort to penetrate the Syrian revolution failed in 2011, by the summer of 2013 ISIS had taken the city of Raqqa from Nusra Front and from FSA (Free Syrian Army) elements. It was the first time in history that an al- Qaeda organization had uncontested sway over such a major urban area.”
The ISIS Brand
“When people ask me to reduce ISIS to a bumper sticker — what is it, how did it come about, the way I describe it is as a mathematical system: Iraq + Syria + Social Media,” he explained.
“The young jihadist looks, if he looks at all, to a contending, noisy and yet minority trend in Islam, one that has often existed, often raised its head, but is a minority one,” said Fernandez, referring to the kind of Salafism that ISIS promotes. “Islam for the ISIS propagandist is cherry picked and what is not useful is ignored.”
Fernandez explained that ISIS ideology “strip mines selectively from the sweep of the period of formative Islam.”
It would be a mistake, he said, to believe that ISIS is seeking to bring back some kind of Medieval Islam, since Islam was “a much more tolerant Islam than the Islamic State purports to represent today.” That was a period that included, for example, the Sufi theologian of love Ibn ‘Arabi and the 12th century Muslim philosopher of rationalism Ibn Rushd of Cordoba (known as Averroes in Europe.)
And Fernandez argued that the West is mistaken in thinking that the Islamic
He said that the group’s vision — the “compelling package” that ISIS is selling — aims to take its adherents “from sociopolitical marginalization to the sociopolitical center, from a position of insignificance to a position of importance; from exclusion to dictating the agenda; from confusion to a sense of mission; from backwardness to the state of a superior culture; from isolation and misery to greatness and glory; from loss of identity to a distinct and even superior identity; from the provincial level to the global level; from the here and now to the historical and the eternal; from fear to courage; from weakness to great power; and from perpetual defeat to constant victory.”
While armed with a “strong ideological component,” Fernandez said the Islamic State’s “political project” is presented as “successful and growing” even when it’s not.
“It does have this weakness, that this visionary image that exists is tethered to this battered proto-state façade that is slowly, all too slowly, caving in,” he said, referring to fairly recent losses by ISIS on the battlefield. “ISIS is kind of like a puffer fish. It blows itself up to look more fierce than it is.”
Despite its losses in Syria, ISIS continues it’s “victory narrative,” which has been largely maintained, Fernandez said, by “the actions and growth of ISIS franchises in places like Libya, Sinai, Nigeria and other places,” and the group’s association with recent high-profile attacks in the West including Paris and San Bernardino.
“These mimic and in a way replace the preferred ISIS image of military victory on the ground. They would rather be marching into Bagdad or Damascus. But if they can’t they’ll make do with spectacular events, spectacular actions that attract our attention,” he said.
The greatest threat posed by ISIS may be that it can “surge into areas where governance is weak” as in the case of Libya and Yemen, but Fernandez believes the group, as President Obama also said, is not “an existential threat to the American homeland” and may never be.
“Yes it will continue to try and piggyback on the news cycle to achieve maximum coverage by carrying attention grabbing stunts involving mass slaughter . Yes it will use its revolutionary message to seduce and inspire the rebellious, the idealistic, the bored, the fanaticized, ” he said. “But its principle danger lies as part of a spectrum of instability within increasingly fragile Sunni Arab Muslim States where there is deeply ingrained poor governance, poor economic prospects, injustice, relative deprivation, (and) a young and alienated population in a polarized political environment where Islamism in all its many forms has become in many ways the default political alternative.”
The ISIS brand and image is “a huge success,” Fernandez said, compared with most other terrorist groups and insurgent movements.
“The fact that it’s mobilized tens of thousands of people to flee their countries — thousands of them leaving comfortable circumstances in the West — is testimony to the power of its message,” said Fernandez.
The biggest difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda, he said is that ISIS is not selective about who joins the group and it entices people to live a good life in a state they can call home complete with law and order, medical services, and houses to live in.
“You can’t make that argument (to followers) if you are living in a cave in Waziristan,” he quipped. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS is not just recruiting for “hitmen.”
Groups such as the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he said, have as a result “upped their game and changed the way they were doing things to survive and adapt to the challenge of the Islamic State.”
Fernandez said that when he was in government, as recently as 2013 when ISIS was beginning to rise, there was hope that this struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda “would have them fighting over the same finite piece and result in discrediting both of them.” This didn’t happen. Instead, he said “their bitter struggle continues in the context of a growing pie.” (Fernandez now suggests that Nusra, whose only target has ever been “power in Syria” could potentially emerge as a “bigger, longer-term threat” in Syria than the Islamic State.)
A Military Solution ?
Fernandez argued that the number one priority is for ISIS to be defeated militarily, but that ideological factors also need to be discredited.
“It should be defeated quickly rather than slowly given the environment where it flourishes and there are many scenarios to do that,” he said admitting he’s not a military expert and referring to Ambassador Jim Jeffries discussion in Foreign Affairs of “judicious use of some ground troops.”
He said that the Obama administration and others underestimated the ISIS threat and missed some of the warning signs.
For example, he said a report by the National Intelligence Council in 2005 (prepared under the aegis of the Director of National Intelligence) warned of the declaration of a Caliphate by 2020; predicting that “radical Islam will have a global impact rallying disparate ethnic and national groups and perhaps even creating an authority that transcends national boundaries.”
“If we look at the administration and where it’s gone for the past two years on the Islamic State we see it going from minimizing the threat of the rising Islamic State as a JV team — January 2014 — the time of the fall of Falluja; to saying we will degrade and destroy it — September 2014; to the Islamic State is contained in the Middle East — November 2015; to that there are no existential threats to the US and ISIS does not form a threat to our existence January 2016,” recalled Fernandez.
He said that Obama has acknowledged that guns alone will not defeat the Islamic State’s ideology, and that better ideas are also important. But he said Obama hasn’t been specific on what those better ideas are.
Fernandez did however agree with Obama’s decrying (during this year’s State of the Union address) of “an alarming rise in rhetoric and acts of bigotry, hysteria and Islamophobia, and an overselling of the ISIS threat” in the U.S.
When asked to weigh in on how the 2016 presidential candidates understand the ISIS threat, Fernandez said “there’s a lot of ignorance” and “hot air” with candidates trying to prove who’s more “macho, who can talk tougher about the Islamic State.”
“Volume and Passion”
“Volume and passion” in its propaganda game, Fernandez said, are what ISIS has that the “good guys” lack.
“If you can’t create it yourself, you need to buy it or rent it or do something to get it…If they have a troll army, if they have an online community of interested people that amplify their message like ISIS fanboys — ‘the knights of the uploading’ — as they call them, we need to find our own, we meaning those that are opposed to ISIS,” he said.
Fernandez argued not that counter-terrorism/de-radicalization battles have been won and lost, but that they’ve never really been waged. And he urged, in agreement with some in the audience, that more capital be invested on one-on-one interactions.
“A lot of people focus on ISIS videos, they see that and react to it, those are necessary but they’re not sufficient,” he said. “One of the challenges we have when we fight ISIS propaganda is that, all too often what we try to do is work like factories (ie) ‘Here’s our product, here’s our super duper anti-ISIS video with all its bells on, just watch this and you’ll never become a terrorist.’ The world doesn’t work that way.”
He did say in an interview following the talk that taking down ISIS social media accounts and web sites is having an effect, and worth the effort.
And he’s encouraged by voices of moderation in the region that refuge ISIS’ ideology. During the talk, Fernandez showed a short video montage of Arabic speaking regional voices (with English subtitles) — from intolerant to reformist — that MEMRI has collected.
“How do the voices that we heard here of people that are talking about tolerance, about humanity, about a humanistic vision of Islam, how are those people empowered?” he asked the audience, noting that it wouldn’t work to “put a Made-in-the-USA label” on their voices.
“Humanity needs to help them but we are not exactly well positioned to do that. This is a fight within Islam among Muslims that’s very consequential to the rest of us because of this globalized situation that we live in,” he said.
It’s both surprising and encouraging that compelling as the ISIS message may be to those most vulnerable to it — according to experts the young converts, second generation immigrants, people that have committed petty crimes or been jailed for minor offenses — relatively few have been radicalized to join the group.
“Despite the glitz and the glamour and the power and the videos and the head-cutting, this is a powerful propaganda image that has succeeded in mobilizing a tiny minority in a potential pool of more than a billion Muslims,” he said.
When the ISIS’ state building project is defeated — and Fernandez does believe that the project if not ISIS itself will be defeated — he said that he would hope that the U.S. government would support “people and governments in the Middle East that prioritize those human and tolerant values and traditions…that are universal and also embraced by so many in the region.”
He said he’s “never seen such a consequential dramatic and destructive period as the one that we are living in over the past few years.”
“I would hope that we’ve learned something, in the end,” he said. “These are not broken societies, but deeply wounded ones. They fully deserve our solidarity and respect. And despite the poison of the jihadists like ISIS, the duplicity and hypocrisy of many of the regimes, the burden of history, and our own many historic mis-steps and blindness, there is still to this day a real reservoir of goodwill towards the American people … And that is a sounder, longer-lasting foundation to build on going forward in the Middle East.”
The Fernandez talk was organized by the Duke University Center for International Studies and the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.